Hawaiian Culture Introduction

Performers demonstrate a Titi torea at the Polynesian Cultural Center, Honolulu

Tibor Bognar / Getty Images

In order fully to appreciate Hawaiian culture, one must first understand its basic difference from western culture and eastern culture.

Western culture is based, in large part, on what a person possesses. Eastern culture is based more on the person and one's desire to learn more about oneself.

A Culture Based on the Land

Hawaiian culture, however, like most Polynesian cultures, is based on the land.

The Kanaka Maoli (indigenous natives) are one with the land.

As the late, renowned, Hawaiian storyteller, "Uncle Charlie" Maxwell, says, "The land which is the basis of the culture, with its streams, mountains, beaches, and oceans, must be held in reverence and protected as it was in ancient times... The historical sites, burials, language, arts, dances, canoe migrations, etc., will have to be promoted, nurtured and preserved."

Dr. Paul Pearsall

Dr. Paul Pearsall (1942-2007) was the author of a book titled, "The Pleasure Prescription," in which he discusses in detail the principles and practices of ancient Polynesian/Hawaiian cultures.

Dr. Pearsall quotes a native Hawaiian, "We are at home. So many people who come here seem lost and emotionally or spiritually homeless. They keep moving, but they never really live anywhere. We love being in our place in the sea. We will never leave because we are this place"

Totality With the Land and With Nature

This concept of totality with the land and with nature is essential to any understanding of Hawaiian culture and beliefs.

Without an appreciation for this concept, one cannot begin to understand the marvels of this unique and wonderful culture.

Love of the land is at the heart of all Hawaiian customs, language, the hula, chants, mele (songs), popular music, art, history, geography, archeology, traditions, religion, and even politics.

In short, we are discussing the intellectual and artistic achievements of this society.

A Sense of Aloha

As Dr. Pearsall explains, the native Hawaiians live with a sense of aloha.

The word "aloha" consists of two parts. "Alo" means to share and "ha" means to breathe. Aloha means to share breath, and more precisely to share the breath of life.

Foreign Influence

In discussing Hawaiian culture one cannot neglect the fact that the overall culture in Hawaii today has been and continues to be influenced greatly by others who have come to these islands and have settled over the last two centuries.

These immigrants - from the United States, Japan, China, Mexico, Samoa, the Philippines, and countless other places - have also had a profound effect on the culture of the islands, and together with the Kanaka Maoli, make up the people of Hawaii today.

Native Hawaiians often refer to Westerners as haole. The word "haole" also consists of two parts. "Ha", as we have learned, means breath and "ole" means without.

In short, many native Hawaiians continue to see Westerners as being people who are breathless. We rarely take time to stop, breathe, and appreciate everything around us.

This is a fundamental difference between the Western culture and the Hawaiian culture.

Cultural Clashes

This difference has resulted in and continues to result in, many confrontations among those who currently make Hawaii their home. The fundamental rights of the Hawaiian people are currently being debated not only in the islands but at the highest levels of the national government.

Today, while the Hawaiian language is taught throughout the islands in immersion schools and native Hawaiian children are exposed to many of the traditions of their people, these same children are greatly outnumbered by the children of other races and influenced by modern society as a whole. The numbers of those with pure Hawaiian blood continue to decline as Hawaii becomes a more inter-racial society.

A Visitor’s Responsibility

Visitors to Hawaii should take time to learn about the culture, history, and language of the Hawaiian people.

The informed visitor is the visitor most likely to return home having not only experienced a wonderful vacation but also with the satisfaction that they have learned about the people who inhabit the land which they have visited.

It is only with this knowledge that you can truly say that you have experienced a bit about Hawaiian culture.

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